In trying to meet the standards for No Child Left Behind, Utah lawmakers started looking for holes in the state’s education system. Where and at what point were students beginning to fall behind in core subjects like math and reading? The question took lawmakers to a surprising place, all the way back to preschool.
It turns out that preparing a child to succeed in school starts even before first grade. Access to kindergarten and preschool programs, where the basic work of letter recognition and sounding words begins, is crucial.
Out of 41 school districts in Utah, 18 are rural, with limited access to early education programs. So the state decided to try something new. If you can’t send all children to preschool, send preschool into families’ homes.
Plunking youngsters down in front of a computer is not every parent’s ideal start to their child’s education, but in a lot of ways UPSTART (Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow), an in-home school-readiness software-based program for preschool-age children, seems to be working. The Utah Legislature launched a five-year pilot program called UPSTART in 2008 through the Utah State Office of Education (administered by the non-profit Waterford Institute). The program’s target audience is families with young children in rural areas with limited or no access to education services, transportation challenged communities, families who don’t want to send children to preschool centers and children needing additional skill development such as non-native speakers. In its first year, UPSTART enrolled 1,308 students. Families without a computer receive one on loan from the program.
UPSTART has reasonable expectations. Child participants are expected to spend 15 minutes per day, five days a week, on the lessons—for a total of 75 minutes per week. The programs, like Rusty and Rosy Learn with Me and Camp Consonant, use games, songs, digital books and animation to teach and test reading, science and math.
The five-year pilot showed enough beneficial results that UPSTART was awarded a Validation Grant of $11.5 million by the U.S. Department of Education to expand into additional rural communities. The Utah Legislature also extended funding for the program in 2014, and the following year two pilot programs began in South Carolina and Idaho.